Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Province Within A City

There's no such thing as a perfect democracy. Inevitably, instabilities will creep into the structure because humans are not robots, and are not capable of maintaining a totally smooth, entirely equitable path. This is the case in Ontario, particularly with regard to the province's relationship with the city of Toronto, home to a fair chunk of its population. Some urban boosters, myself among them, have felt that the province doesn't give the city a fair shake, and that it should secede from Ontario and become Canada's eleventh province. Yesterday, the issue was put into starker focus and propelled into a small media spotlight when Member of Provincial Parliament Bill Murdoch spoke favorably of Torontonian secession, framing it as a vehicle for Ontario to pay more attention to rural issues without megalopolitan distractions.

It's good that this is being talked about. It hasn't been in the news, really, for ten years, when ex-Mayor Mel Lastman and second-place mayoral candidate Tooker Gomberg mused about it, when the wounds from the forced amalgamation of Metropolitan Toronto were even more raw than they are today. For the record, I personally support the idea of a Province of Toronto - containing at least the inner 905 as well, for the reasons Randy McDonald elaborated on yesterday - as a way to equalize the situation that currently exists between Ontario and Toronto - but it's not something that should be, or could be, done lightly.

You have to admit, though, it would make the snazziest parliament in the country.

Creating a Province of Toronto would be, by its very nature, a seismic shift in Canadian politics. It's been more than a hundred years since a province was created out of whole cloth in such a fashion, and it's not the sort of thing that would happen easily. The path to provincehood is fraught with obstacles - it would require the amendment of the Constitution, and considering what we had to do to get the provinces to sign the Constitution, amending it would complicate things even more - and would, in Queen's Park, brush up against the one common feature of every government on Earth: an unwillingness to relinquish authority it already possesses.

Still, something has got to give. Budgetary woes represent Toronto's biggest long-term problem at the moment, and ultimately the reason we have those woes is the government of Ontario. Beyond the issues of Queen's Park taking more tax money out of Toronto than it invests in it, beyond the concerns of city services that were once provincially-supported but are now no longer thanks to Mike the Knife, it's a simple issue of capability.

The province's City of Toronto Act, 2006 provides the legal framework under which the City of Toronto runs. While the Preamble states that "the Assembly recognizes that the City of Toronto... is an economic engine of Ontario," the Act itself scarcely allows the city the capability to maintain that engine. The list of taxes that Toronto is not permitted to levy is long, and while some - like income tax - are understandable, from much of the rest of the list I get the impression that the province is holding on to power for power's sake.

Toronto is not allowed to impose sales taxes outside of four very specific circumstances, whereas many cities or counties in the United States levy their own local sales taxes. In Los Angeles County, it's a half-cent sales tax that is financing Measure R, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's long-term, consistent revenue stream. Nor can it establish hotel taxes, road tolls, or gas taxes. One reason the billboard tax increase recently has been in the news is because those billboards are one of the few things Toronto is allowed to tax.

As a result, the city has to rely on property tax revenue in order to run. This isn't a formula that can be continued forever, particularly considering the wealth of provincial responsibilities that were unceremoniously downloaded to the cities during the Harris years. Nor can Toronto run a deficit, unlike the federal or provincial governments - so while it's Ottawa and Queen's Park that talk big about fiscal responsibility while digging themselves into deeper and deeper holes, it's Toronto and other cities that are forced to balance that responsibility with the responsibilities that have been dumped on them.

A Province of Toronto would change that, at least for Toronto. It would give the city the capacity to move at its own pace, to forge its own destiny. I think it's a valid last-ditch maneuver. In the meantime, we owe it more to ourselves and to each other to try to remedy the imbalance that currently exists - to bring a greater equitability to relationships between the province and the municipalities, to give cities and towns across Ontario the capacity to stand tall.

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